commission

The commission looking into jail abuse, which includes the Rev. Cecil Murray, left, Jim McDonnell, Alex Busansky and Lourdes G. Baird, considered calling on Sheriff Lee Baca to resign but decided against it. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / September 24, 2012)

A blue-ribbon commission blamed Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca on Friday for a pattern of excessive force by his deputies in the county jails, warning that Baca is running out of time to fix the problems.

The commission, which includes several former judges and a police chief, said Baca did not listen to repeated warnings from the department's civilian watchdogs and inmates-rights advocates about conditions in the jail.

The panel's scathing findings are expected to put pressure on the sheriff to more aggressively deal with problems in the nation's largest jail system, which is the subject of a wide-ranging FBI criminal investigation.

FULL COVERAGE: Jails under scrutiny

Commissioners held Baca responsible for the scandal, which they attributed to a "failure of leadership." The panel's members said they considered calling for Baca to resign but decided against doing so, hoping that he would prove willing to carry out their recommendations.

Commissioner Jim McDonnell, chief of the Long Beach Police Department, said he was concerned that federal authorities would ask a judge to order reforms if Baca does not immediately implement the long list of proposed fixes. Such a move by the federal government would limit Baca's ability to manage his own department and prove costly for the county.

McDonnell and other commissioners said they were disappointed with Baca's testimony at a commission hearing earlier this year when the sheriff was asked how he could be held accountable and responded, "Don't elect me."

"His statement seemingly reflects a lack of genuine concern," said Alex Busansky, a commissioner who is the president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, an Oakland-based nonprofit. "Real leaders do not need an election to teach them the difference between right and wrong."

Robert C. Bonner, a former federal court judge who headed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in the early 1990s, said Baca "seems to have had his head in the sand." Still, Bonner said, he cautiously believed Baca would do what is right. "I hope I'm not proven wrong," he said.

In his defense, Baca has said his senior managers never told him about jailer brutality but insists he has since taken dramatic steps to address the problems, such as creating an internal task force devoted to reforming his jails.

Baca's spokesman, Steve Whitmore, rejected the commission's criticism of the sheriff.

We believe that there is no failure of leadership," Whitmore said. "The sheriff believes that his… loudest critics can be his best teachers."

Whitmore said Baca needed time to review the commission's recommendations before he could determine whether he would carry them all out.

The commission, which was created by the Board of Supervisors last year to examine allegations of jail abuse, released a 194-page report recommending more than 60 reforms that included a management shake up, harsher penalties for excessive force and dishonesty and the formation of a new civilian watchdog.

"If a chief executive officer in private business had remained in the dark or ignored problems plaguing one of the company's primary services for years, that company's board of directors likely would not have hesitated to replace the CEO," the report said.

As an elected official, Baca cannot be forced to implement any of the commission's recommendations, but Supervisor Gloria Molina has said she would call for his resignation if he refuses to embrace the reforms. The commission's general counsel, Richard E. Drooyan, said it would be up to voters to hold Baca accountable if the sheriff fails to act decisively.

"If he doesn't fix the jails," Drooyan said, "he should not be reelected."

The release of the report is a major milestone in a jail abuse scandal that erupted more than a year ago when The Times revealed the FBI was secretly investigating the jails. Federal agents went so far as to smuggle a cellphone through a corrupt jailer to an inmate working as a confidential informant. Other allegations of abuse and mismanagement followed in subsequent months.

The commission based its report on interviews with current and former sheriff's officials, other jailhouse witnesses, testimony from experts and internal department records. Its investigation painted a grim image of Baca's jails over the years. Among the findings were that top supervisors made jokes about inmate abuse, encouraged deputies to push ethical boundaries and ignored alarming signs of problems with excessive force.

Deputies "have used force against inmates when the force was disproportionate to the threat posed or there was no threat at all," the commission concluded. It also addressed Baca's contention that his underlings kept him in the dark: "A leader who does not want to hear about problems will not be told of them by those who work under him, and this appears to be the case here."